Longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize Eka Kurniawan’s novel signals the birth of a sophisticated crime noir genre in Indonesian literature
In his introduction to Man Tiger, the most recent of Eka Kurniawan’s novels to be translated into English, the late Benedict Anderson makes a number of interesting and useful comments concerning Kurniawan’s ‘evolving style’ as a writer. He describes ‘the sheer beauty of his prose’ and ‘the pervasive voice of the storyteller’ but the observation I find to be the most insightful is about Eka’s ‘growing discipline in the use of the supernatural.’ In Anderson’s own words
In Beauty is a Wound, the magical is everywhere, as it is in the still popular traditional puppet theatre based on local versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. In this theatre there is always a zoo of gods and goddesses, aristocratic warriors, devils, kings, giants, clowns, ghosts, princesses, and so on, all of whom are iconographically fixed. For example, princesses and queens are always prodigiously beautiful, while the female clowns are physical grotesques. There are no plain-but-fascinating women. In the earlier of Eka’s two [translated] novels, women are always either “too beautiful to believe” or horribly ugly. But in Man Tiger there is only one supernatural being, and space is made for ordinary women whose characters develop as the story proceeds.
Two things in particular are worth noting about this passage. The first is that Anderson is making sly reference to the contemporary form of post-colonialist writing known as ‘magical realism’, which is commonly understood to originate with the quasi-fantastic novels of Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) and with whose work Kurniawan is fashionably identified in the western media. Anytime an indigenous writer in the developing world directly evokes the supernatural as a plot device then he or she must be operating within the trope of magical realism, itself an invention of Eurocentric literary critics.
However, classifying Kurniawan as a ‘magical realist’ is fundamentally misleading. Such an overly neat classification reveals a Eurocentric reluctance to come to terms with a central characteristic of Indonesian literature, both formal and popular – the use of supernatural narrative, including the forms of both ghost story and more general forms of Horror usually centred upon the return of a dead person (a ‘Revenant’ in Irish folklore), as a means of expressing cultural concerns and anxieties over the historical trauma of colonialism and oppression.
As Anderson rightly perceives, Kurniawan is deploying traditional forms of Javanese oral folklore and storytelling for his own (largely playful) ends; to label this ‘magical realism’ is to fail to come to terms a most important point. Within a culture that accepts supernaturalism as a form of causality (albeit subject to its own internal set of rules parallel to those of the physical world) ‘magical realism’ is not magical – it is merely ‘realism’.
The growing western inclination to regard the belief in the supernatural – and increasingly, with the religious in its entirety – as a grounds for refusal of recognition as serious art (or thought), is simply the continuation of neo-colonialism by other means. It is precisely Kurniawan’s sly and largely self-satirising deployment of the supernatural that allows his texts to operate nomadically, crossing across cultural boundaries and acquire new and more subversive meanings through their migrations. Thereby demonstrating that the occult can deconstruct and subvert power structures as effectively as the profanely political or the mundanely material.
The second point I take from Anderson’s comment relates to how Kurniawan’s restriction of the (overtly) supernatural to merely one character constitutes a sign of maturation on the part of the author. Again, this could be dismissed as residual Eurocentrism on the part of Anderson, one which does seem to infect the opinion of other western critics. On another level, it does point to an issue that I have identified as a curious, if not troubling, aspect of Indonesian literature. That is its failure, in contrast to other neo-colonialist societies, to develop crime fiction as a sophisticated literary genre. This strikes me as odd, as the signature themes of crime writing, and most especially the sub-genre of Noir, are concerned with describing a landscape that is highly consistent with the political geography of colonialism – the criminality of the everyday (or the ‘normal’), the multiplicity and duplicity of personal identity, the dissociative nature of the private Self, the subversive nature of speech, and the internalization of secret strategies of resistance.
What most impressed me with Man Tiger, and which leads me to a partial agreement with Anderson concerning Kurniawan’s literary evolution, was the novel’s numerous points of contact with crime fiction, albeit in an under-developed manner. The novel begins with an exceptionally nasty homicide – ‘On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond’ is the opening sentence. That crime, we learn, serves as the revenge killing of an adulterous and sexually predatory male by the son of a sexually exploited and physically abused woman. Here is how the novel ends, a direct evocation of the first line.
‘Marry my mother and she’ll be happy.’
Anwar Sadat shook his head nervously, and his reply came out brokenly.
‘That’s impossible, you know I have a wife and daughters.’ Something in his face said the proposition was absurd, making what he said next redundant. ‘Besides, I don’t love your mother.’
That was when the tiger came out of Margio, white as a swan.
The description of the crime scene and the murderer is clearly based upon the ultra-graphic hard-boiled manner of the contemporary American ‘procedural’ crime novel – that is, the plot as an exercise in forensic analysis.
The scene was forever burned into Maesa Dewi’s retinas, there for years, unexpunged for decades, an image more brutal than any horror film She saw the half-severed neck; even the throats of cows slaughtered for the Festival of Sacrifice never looked that ghastly. There were clods of flesh scattered all over the floor, like spilled spaghetti sauce. The white tiled floor with streaks of red blood resembled the national flag. And still standing there was Margio, his face a mask of gore, nearly unrecognisable, while his hands and shirt were just as repulsive. For a moment they exchanged a glance at the strangest threshold of conscience, in a state where both comprehended the hideousness of what had happened.
The possessory spirit of the white tiger that periodically takes over the body of its host, the protagonist Margio, in moments of crisis is described in terms that directly invokes the literature of the serial killer: the homicidal impulse is spontaneous, irresistible, and viscerally embedded within the mechanisms of the killer’s own body.
As Margio later confessed to the police, yes, he killed the man by biting through an artery in his neck. There was no other weapon available, he said. The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain. He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other than guts and entrails. It poured out and steered him, encouraging him to kill. The thing was so strong, he said, he didn’t need a weapon of any kind. ‘It wasn’t me,’ he said calmly and without guilt. ‘There is a tiger inside my body.’
But most subversive (or progressive) of all, is that the tiger is really a tigress, a veritable Jungian anima that inhabits nearly all of the male descendants of Margio’s patrilineal family, generation to generation. In other words, the men of this clan are selected as potential instruments of vengeance for the sexual and domestic abuse of women. Significantly, Margio’s abusive father Komar bin Syueb is the only male who is passed over. Kurniawan’s narratively deft touch tremendously enlarges the social dimensions of the novel and clearly lays out the groundwork for a nativist form of crime writing that is both orthodox and conservative: the challenging of Feminine identities is a central theme within contemporary Noir fiction. ‘Classic’ Noir (c. 1930–1970) is concerned – if not actually obsessed – with a paranoid and besieged Masculinity of which the genre’s archetypal character of the Femme Fatale was the primary signifier. Transposing vigilante Feminist justice to a (female) supernatural creature operating through the passive body of a male marionette enables Kurniawan to artfully camouflage a purely secular crime story of a homicidal Femme Fatale as a mere folkloric entertainment concerning ‘everyday’ magical spirits.
Nor is that all.
Given the ‘gender identity’ of the Beast, the title of the novel should be Man Tigress.
Or, in the alternative, Man Woman.
But that, perhaps, is for another time.
Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger, London: Verso, 2015.
Eric Wilson (email@example.com) is a senior lecturer of law at Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of The Savage Republic: De Indis of Hugo Grotius, Republicanism, and Dutch Hegemony in the Early Modern World System (c.1600-1619), (Martinus Nijhoff, 2008); The Spectacle of the False Flag: Parapolitics from JFK to Watergate (Punctum Books, 2015) and ‘You’ll Learn, Tough Guy’: On the Relevance of American Crime Fiction and The Femme Fatale to Indonesian Literature. Indonesian Feminist Journal 4, March, 2016. He is the editor of a series of works on critical criminology.